Drag Racing, Feature Article, Washington — May 25, 2011 at 11:05 am

Amanda Hitchcock and Kaylah Sada-Palmquist (issue 98)



By Steve Heeb

Junior dragster drivers Amanda Hitchcock and Kaylah Sada-Palmquist are different girls. They started racing at different ages, compete in two different classes at two different home tracks. Yet they both are backed by a wealth of Northwest racing tradition and a respect for racing safety.

At 18 years old, Amanda is about to age out of the junior dragster ranks at Pacific Raceways.

Amanda started four years ago, influenced in part by her grandfather Al Lapointe and his long-time experience with ­hydroplanes as well as the drag and sprint car circuits.

“I grew up around boats,” Amanda says of her youth spent at various regattas as well as  helping out at ­Pacific Raceways. “I kind of enjoy it all.”

Amanda remembers first renting a car from Jim Ronan so she could race in the Fourth of July event in 2007. She liked it so much that her parents bought the car as a Christmas surprise later that year.

“It was kind of ready to race,” recalls Amanda’s father Tim. “We did build it up quite a bit that winter. That was pretty much a frame-up restoration for this car.”

And Amanda is not one to watch others do all the work on the car.

“I encourage the kids to get involved with the cars and know how they work,” says her mother Tracy. “Amanda’s a good second-hand mechanic. She takes automotive classes at school and she is really good at it.”

“I change the oil, keep it clean, take care of the gas and can change the clutch and things on the motor,” Amanda explains.

Amanda remembers challenges from her early days racing the dragster.

“The lights were more difficult than I had expected but I am better at that now,” Amanda says. “I try to stage really shallow. I would tell people to be consistent in staging on the second light.”

“Her biggest improvements have been with the lights and consistency,” Tracy agrees. “She has practiced a lot.”

Tim recalls a race in the 2009 when Amanda lost a close race after cutting a perfect light.

Amanda says her father’s advice has helped her racing.

“He told me not to get nervous as I go up in rounds,” she says. “And to keep focused on procedures.”

Tim and Tracy appreciate the positive role racing has on their daughter.

“She’s a very positive person,” Tracy says. “We can be having the worst day and she’s still enthusiastic. She is a darn good sport about it.”

“A better sport than I am,” Tim laughs. “My philosophy is that if you can beat the best, you can beat the rest.”

Amanda says her friends at school always shared her excitement when she did well at the races.

During the school year, Tim and Tracy put the stipulation on Amanda’s racing that she could continue, provided she did well at school.

“We said she can race as long as she kept her grades up,” Tracy says.

That proved to not be a problem as Amanda maintained a 3.5 average and graduated with honors from Mt. Si High School in June.

At 9, Kaylah is half Amanda’s age and is a relative newcomer wrapping up a season in the Juniors 8-9 division at Bremerton Raceway.

Kaylah got her career off to a great start toward the end of the 2010 season, winning in her very first outing.

“That was my birthday weekend,” Kaylah recalls. “I was the number one qualifier and I won.”

She notched the victory at the controls of the very Creative Chassis dragster that her mother Elizabeth Sada had fielded when she was 12.

“It was awesome to see her race,” Elizabeth says of seeing Kaylah in the 13-foot-nine-inch wheelbase dragster still decorated the same as when she had driven it years ago. “Watching her race the first time brought tears to my eyes.”

Grandmother Lisa also was emotional.

“It was definitely surreal,” Lisa says of watching her grandaughter race for the first time and recalling times when the family had three drivers at a time with Russell, Steven and Elizabeth. “It was like a flashback. It’s hard to believe we were doing it again.”

Kaylah says her early racing at Bremerton was challenging, facing more experienced competitors like Jeremy Watts, Ryan Lamoureux and Kaden Bean.

“It’s been coming along,” Kaylah says after almost a full season of seat time. “I feel better with my racing now.”

“She’s already won races so she knows she can beat them,” says her grandfather Russell Stevenson. “At Bremerton’s Chevy Day weekend Kaylah took out the number one qualifier Jeremy Watts in the first round.”

Kaylah would go on to win the event June 4 at Bremerton Raceway, while Amanda also would notch another win that weekend as well at Pacific Raceways.

Amanda’s June 3 win the day before at Pacific Raceways was just one of several highlights for her this season, including a win in the Don Rhyne Memorial race at Woodburn Dragstrip.

“That was a big one,” Amanda says of the prestigious annual junior dragster competition.

“This year everything clicked,” Tim says of his daughter’s efforts throughout 2011. “She took first or second at each race this year except for the one she broke at. It was in the middle of the season and we lost the head bolts so we couldn’t race that day.”

Amanda also missed one race so she could participate in the Mt. Si graduation ceremonies.

Even with those two missed opportunities, Amanda amassed 235 points and clinched this year’s title at Pacific Raceways part way through the final event.

“It was a pretty tight race,” Amanda says of the 2011 campaign. “Molly and Drew were virtually tied right behind me.”

Amanda went on to finish the afternoon by winning the event outright and securing a spot on Team Pacific Raceways during the E.T. Bracket Finals at Firebird Raceway over the Labor Day weekend.

With her first season winding down. Kaylah already had won three races, including collecting a prestigious Wally, and posted runner-up finishes three times.

Russell says he is looking forward to the final race of the 2011 season, when Kaylah will have another birthday and graduate up from the 8-9 year olds class and into the JDRL Thunder division.

“We’ll be able to take all the weight off the car,” he says. “We can take off the throttle stop and run full out. It’s been hard to slow the car down to the 12.90-second limit.”

Russell has seen how changes in the rules have gradually led to greater speeds for the kids racing junior dragsters.

“When Elizabeth was racing she used a pull-start motor that did about 20 to 30 miles per hour at 17.5 seconds,” he explains. “Now the car has an alcohol motor and does 12.90 at 49 miles per hour.”

“Kaylah has gone faster than I ever went,” Elizabeth adds. “I admit I was a little jealous.”

“The car is moving way faster,” Lisa agrees. “It’s a whole different deal now than when Elizabeth was driving.”

With alcohol motors and faster speeds comes a greater need for safety to protect the young drivers.

“Safety has come a long way in the last five years or so,” says Al Lapointe, who has seen many changes since Security Race Products built its first life jacket in 1978. “The racing groups are finally starting to open their eyes about the importance of safety. Not just in the juniors but in racing as a whole.”

Security Race Products built its first driving suit in 1980 and has expanded its line of safety equipment ever since.

“Our policy is to enlighten teams on what they should have and then let them decide,” Al says. “All of our driving suits rate real well and we offer everything. We custom make the driving suits and team shirts.”

The company now produces about 150 driving suits a year to local teams in the Northwest, which makes up a little over half of SRP’s sales worldwide.

Many of those sales have been to boat teams, but Al notes the drag racing and sprint car markets are growing rapidly.

“We’ll put our suits up against any one in the country,” Al says of their safety apparel. “We excel in our suits and life jackets.”

Al says he especially enjoys helping the teams in the sportsman ranks.

“We do this because we are all racers and ex-racers,” he says of the company’s close ties with the motorsports community. “We always try to improve on things for them.

Amanda has seen some changes in the safety requirements in the four short years since she started racing.

“Now the kids have to wear full uniforms,” Tim says.

“And head and neck restraints,” Al adds. “There’s also nets installed to keep the driver’s head from hitting the roll cage.”

“I wear a Stroud neck brace,” Amanda says.“A lot of the drivers have gone to the HANS device and the nets we have to put over our legs.”

“The neck collars are OK but only work about 50 percent of the time,” Al estimates. “The HANS device and Safety Solutions are 95 percent effective. If I had my way every one of the drivers should wear one of these. Especially in the juniors where the kids’ necks are still fragile.”

He recognizes many starting teams are mistakenly concerned about the cost of the equipment.

“Yes they are spendy,” Al says of the proper safety suits. “But it is a lot cheaper than the hospital.”

He says Amanda is outfitted with a SFI 5 rated driver suit.

“People think that’s overkill but these are alcohol motors,” Al says of the modern junior dragsters. “As far as I am concerned any time you are running alcohol you have to have at least a two-layer suit.”

He also agrees with the additional restraint nets inside the car.

“We’ve seen to many accidents,” Al says. “The main thing is to keep their heads from rattling in the cage and keep the feet from moving inside the dragster.

Kaylah has her own responsibilities during the pre-race routine with her safety equipment.

“I make sure that the seatbelt is tight and the neck collar and helmet is strapped right,” Kaylah explains. “And I’m ready to go for the kill switch if there is a problem.”

The kill switch has already been put to use when her clutch broke during a race at the beginning of the 2011 season.

“If it wasn’t safe she wouldn’t be doing it,” Russell says seriously of the safety measures built into the rules, the equipment and the protective gear, including the drivers suits and gloves from Security Race Products. “She is safer in the car than riding her bike in front of the house.”

Russell brings extensive experience in racing to Kaylah’s racing efforts.

“It helps to have ‘Papa’ on my team,” Kaylah says of her grandfather. “He knows how everything goes and knows everything about what to do.”

“She doesn’t have to worry about anything but driving the car,” Russell says. “It’s my job to make sure the stuff is good to go and make sure she is safe.”

In addition to support from sponsors including Security Race Products, Freeway Trailers, Rich Carlson Photography, K&N Filters and Whitman racing Engines, Russell and Elizabeth appreciate the bonds the kids establish coming up through the junior dragster community.

“All of the junior families are great,” Russell says of the supportive group. “Eric McMurray and his family have helped us out a whole bunch. Others like John Doherty and Scott Calhoun, we get a tremendous amount of help from them.”

Jim Ronan, the Juniors coordinator at Pacific Raceways ranks high on their list as well.

They also are quick to credit Vivian and Joe Maplethorpe and their daughter Erika Geise.

Family also runs strong in Kaylah’s corner, including uncle Steven Sada and grandmother Lisa, who keeps the team organized and well-fed on race days.

Amanda’s sponsors are Security Race Products and Race Rescue, the safety crew at Pacific Raceways.

The motor in her Motivational Tubing Chassis dragster is by Craig Whitman.

Amanda also has plenty of family support going for her. Uncle Scott Lapointe helps run the car with Amanda’s parents as well as support from her grandparents Al and Judy Lapointe. 

When the 2012 season revs up, Kaylah will be in the Thunder division and Russell and company will have updated the car for faster speeds and a growing Kaylah.

“When she started we had to put in a seat with a big cushion so Kaylah’s head would fit correctly within the roll bar,” Elizabeth laughs. “Now that cushion is out.”

“The car fits right,” Kaylah smiles.

Due to her late start at age 14 Amanda was spared some of those necessary size adjustments.

“I was kind of set in my growth by then,” Amanda laughs.

Having earned her diploma, Amanda plans to attend The Salon Professional Academy in Tacoma.

“Education is important,” Amanda says.

In the meantime, Al is busy putting together a ride for her in 2012.

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